Making German Bread in Your Home Oven
Making bread is as much an art as it is science. There are many ways to make bread—and I am sure many people have their own favorite way. There are direct yeast methods as well as poolish and sourdough to mention a few. We moved to the U.S. years ago, and I realized fast that I had to make my own bread, as I was used to crusty German bread. Over the years I have been reading many books—some with fabulous explanations and directions (such as Peter Rheinhart’s books), others with recipes that didn’t bring good results (at least for me). I certainly did my share of experiments resulting in bread that was impossible to enjoy, but I believe I have now found ways to make breads that are very similar to what I was used to from Germany—crusty, hearty loaves without sugar or oil—though I only have a “normal” oven to bake them in.
It is important to note that there is not just one “right” way—I believe one has to find the way that makes bread the way one likes it but also fits into the schedule one has. I work full time, and have horses and therapy dogs, so bread making had to fit my busy schedule. The following is the way I make our daily bread. In addition I wanted to share with readers a recipe for “schwarzbrot”—a famous bread in Germany that is very healthy and hearty and really easy to make. My friends here call it “doorstopper bread” as it is extremely heavy, and they request it whenever we have a brunch or potluck as they all love it.
First, how to make a loaf of “German Daily Bread.”
The standard bread in Germany has up to 30% rye and 70% wheat. Most bakeries do not use whole wheat. I modified my recipes and approach, as I like to use whole grains, though I don’t exclusively use whole grain flour. So, here we go:
Let’s say I want to bake on the weekend, in that case I’ll start on Friday evening. (You can modify it certainly to start in the morning, and then continue in the evening, which is what I do frequently, too).
I grind about 3 cups of wheat berries into a fine flour. Mix that with 1/4 teaspoon dry yeast and enough water to make a mash that has oatmeal consistency. Cover and let rise at room temperature over night. This is similar to a poolish, just that you give it more time (not enough for a sourdough though) to fit it into your schedule.
In a separate bowl, I use 3 cups of boiling water and stir in enough freshly ground rye flour to be able to still stir with a spoon. Cover and let sit as well. I found that this process makes the rye more easily digested and makes for a very nice, moist bread in the end, too.
(This process allows for both the wheat and rye bran to get thoroughly hydrated, avoiding a “strawy” consistency and flavor. You won’t even know it’s whole grain flour in the bread!)
The next morning, mix the rye porridge into the wheat porridge until they are blended. (At this time you can add some spices if you like: 1/2 teaspoon each of ground caraway seeds, fennel and coriander—a wonderful mix that is used in Bavaria).
Add 1 teaspoon dry yeast, 1 tablespoon salt and enough wheat flour (this is where I use bread-flour, not whole wheat, as the whole wheat would not have sufficient time to hydrate and you can end up with the strawy flavor) to make slightly sticky dough, that will clear the bowl. Let rise for about 1 hour or until about double the size. Knead for 1 minute again, shape into two loaves (round or oblong) and let rise. I use breadbaskets for this step, for multiple reasons: it is easy and I can clean up the kitchen right away. The second, and important reason: When rising in the breadbasket, the dough will rise on the top, then you turn it upside down in the oven, which allows the bread to rise more in the area that was formerly on the bottom of the basket and couldn’t rise as well. This makes for a very nice risen bread. It truly does “explode” in the oven! And a third reason: it’s really easy to transport onto the baking stone at a time when it is to be handled very delicately to not collapse on you! If you don’t have a breadbasket, you can line a bowl with a floured cloth. You can also let it rise in a free shape on the counter and then transport it onto the stone with a peel.
While the bread is rising after it’s shaped, I heat up the oven to 440°F. In the oven I have two pizza stones—one on the bottom shelf, one on the highest shelf. I also have in the oven a bread-form filled with Sauna Rocks, which I found to be the best way to create steam. (Important note on the pizza stones: I have read that people use unglazed tiles, which will work, however, the pizza stones are food safe—unglazed tiles may not be. They may have been made with heavy metals for example, so I would spend the $10 or so and get a pizza stone.) The pizza stones need to be really hot, so they need about one hour to heat up to 440°F. When the bread is ready to bake, I flip it gently over onto the bottom pizza stone and score it with a razor blade. Then I quickly pour about 1/2 cup of water onto the hot stones to generate the burst of steam that is needed for a nice rise—and close the oven door quickly. After 10 minutes, reduce the heat to 410°F (do not open the oven door, just turn down the thermostat). The bread takes about one hour to bake, and is done when it sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
This bread can be modified to contain up to 70% rye (just make the starter with rye as well), but note that the more rye flour you use, the softer and stickier the dough should be. I found 30% rye to be very easy to handle and that amount of rye is sufficient to make the loaves stay fresher longer and not go stale after one day.
Schwarzbrot (black bread)
You will need two or three large loaf pans.
Preheat oven to 340°F, place a baking sheet on the bottom rack and place another rack right above the baking sheet.
1 pound cracked rye
1 pound cracked wheat
1 pound whole wheat flour
1 cup raw sunflower seeds
3 tablespoons dry yeast
1 tablespoon salt
1/2–2/3 cup honey or molasses
2 pint luke warm buttermilk
Mix everything until well-mixed (best done with your hands in a large bowl). Evenly distribute in oiled and floured loaf pans, making sure the pans are only 3/4 filled. Immediately place in the oven and bake for 3-1/2 hours (yes, I really mean that!). After that time, take the loaves out, let cool for about 10 minutes and then remove from pans and let cool on a rack.
Important: Do not eat the same day—wait until the next day. It will cause stomachaches if eaten fresh out of the oven (besides you won’t be able to slice it).
Slice this bread as thin as you can—I love it with cheese or ham; my husband loves jam on it. This bread stays fresh for a long time and freezes beautifully. I normally make a double batch, as this fits in my oven, and then freeze loaves I don’t immediately need.
Variations to this bread are easy, too. You can add raisins or other dried fruit, or nuts. Traditionally it has only sunflower seeds (you can omit those as well, just adjust the flour slightly if you do).
Originally published in the May/June 2010 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.